I didn’t want to do this … Part 3b – Launching

So, as it was, because I just couldn’t conceive, as a missionary, giving Rwanda what it wanted, Taekwondo, for nine months I absolutely rejected the idea.  I kept pushing the other projects of rocket stoves and biomass charcoal.  

Sometimes we need additional voices. So, God, in His mercy kept prodding me.  Two particular events occurred to push me over the edge to “go for it”.

The first was in September of 2009 when after being cajoled by at least five people, I finally agreed to meet with those interested in Taekwondo and saw they had the skills to actually be masters of the art. Twenty of them gathered and they were great.  As well, even now, I remember how they began to share with me, that as a small group they had trained together for several years and the sport had helped them overcome many of the challenges they faced after the genocide.  

The second occurred the following February.  I had since agreed to dabble in the idea of Taekwondo but was not fully committed as the other projects seemed more plausible and more deeply impacting.  I had gone to Kenya and Uganda and while there had made time to train with a Taekwondo master, Peter Kamau.  He knew my history as a runner and if you know much about sport physiology, running and Taekwondo can be very incompatible as running can really decrease flexibility.  As we trained together, he asked, “Martin, why are your kicks so bad?  Have you been running again?” I answered that I had, yes, been running a little (in truth I had been toying with the idea and treating with God, that if it be sport, then why not the sport I was best at, i.e. running).  In reality, I had trained over one hundred miles the previous week driven by pride and human intellect for sure.   Peter then stated, oh so very boldly, “Listen, running is not what God has given you to do!  It is Taekwondo that he has given you to give to Rwanda!”  I considered this for a couple of weeks, but kept running hard daily and trying to get “in” with the national athletics federation.  Promptly, I was injured in my right heel, and couldn’t run a step; but irony set in, when I realized, even with the injury, I could do all the Taekwondo I wanted!  

Wow, am I hard headed or what?  Oh, for the day, when God doesn’t have to use a plank of wood across my head to get me to listen!

So, we gathered them, began training them in ernest, and waited on God to see what would happen next.

Isaiah 55:8,9.  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

I didn’t want to do this Part 3a – Launching

It was actually not an easy transition from Togo to Rwanda.  Rwanda, even though it had undergone such tragic events between 1959 and 1994, was a much easier place to live than Togo.  It was immaculately clean, the people were, for the most part, very reserved and soft spoken and the country itself is one of the most naturally beautiful countries that I have ever seen.  “So, what made it difficult?”, you may ask.  It was that our work was needing a complete overhaul.  In Togo, it was very straightforward.  You go to a new village that had never heard the gospel.  You asked if you could teach about Jesus.  If they agreed you then began teaching and with time a church was born and then … It was traditional missions, only with the challenges of Southern Togo, which were many.

Togo

Typical village in Southern Togo (photo credit to Radford University)

Rwanda

Rwandan landscape

Rwanda was a different story.  It had a very complicated history.  It was one that also included great fault and guilt on the traditional church and missions for not only aiding colonialists to set up and grow an ethnicity division campaign but, also, during the genocide many churches actually assisted the killers by inviting in those being hunted under the guise of protecting them only to then call in the perpetrators to murder them in the churches themselves.  Like, I said, complicated and tragic.  We were told that we would need to prove social and economic benefit to Rwanda before being allowed to obtain long term visas.  In doing so, it also necessitated us forming an NGO (non-government organization or as we would say a non-profit organization) instead of coming in as a church group.  We were left scratching our heads and then scrambling to figure out what each of us had to offer Rwanda, that Rwanda itself would value.

The thing is, it fit as a different model of missions that we were actually shown the year before at a conference that presented a “Church Planting Movement” model.  It had been very effective in India and in other nations that stood opposed to traditional church planting methods.  Oddly, even though in the early 1990’s Rwanda had been considered the most Christian nation in Africa, the post genocide Rwanda definitely seemed “fed up” with church.  As well, in this model you focus on relationships through service that is valued and in those relationships you are provided the opportunity to initiate studies that are led by others and not yourself and have all the “DNA” of what church should be but often falls short of.

Still we were left with the perplexing question of: ‘What do we have to give?’.  I chose to build rocket stoves initially.  They are these great cooking stoves that cook in half the time and use half the fuel.  We could get really bogged down in the science of it, but I just knew everyone in Rwanda would want one!  They didn’t.  Their list of complaints was long and I found out that Rwandans don’t change traditional things very quickly.  I then jumped on the environmental and economic opportunity bandwagon and quickly developed a press for making biomass charcoal.  It provided businesses, utilized waste wood and field cuttings, and was a low cost startup.  It was a bust.  Turns out they didn’t want to change their cooking fuel either.

The problem with all of this is, that God had already told me what I would do that Rwandans wanted, but my issue was that it just didn’t make sense, and I was a bit terrified that all our supporters would call it quits when they found out.  In my sons’ first week of school they came home incredibly excited to tell me that there was a Taekwondo club at their school.  I decided to visit.  In visiting, I observed that my 13 year old son was a better instructor than this young man.  I asked him for his credentials and he asked me for mine promptly as he didn’t have any.  After inspection and his agreement for me to teach him how to teach he then asked me if I would be the grand master for Rwanda and start a federation here as that is what the people really wanted.  I laughed and said, “No way!”

John 10:27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.

Oops.

Too many words!  Story to be continued in next post …. 3b – Launching

In defense of Taekwondo … on World Taekwondo Day

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…as if it needed to defend itself

I remember a conversation with Kevin and Katey Deasy in Huntsville, AL where they were extolling the positive impact of martial arts on their sons.  I took that back with me to Togo and mused about the reality of having four very strong and physical sons, but I had no idea how to proceed.

When we’ve been flummoxed in such ways while serving in Africa, we prayed.  So, on a day as I was driving through Lome, Togo in February of 2004, I prayed that somehow God would help me find a master to teach my sons the martial art of Taekwondo.  I looked down the road within thirty seconds, truly, of finishing the prayer and saw a huge sign just off the road for Taekwondo.  I stopped by and had a discussion with the owner of the Dojang and within thirty minutes we had a plan for a master to come to Tabligbo, an hour away, on Tuesdays and Thursdays and teach my sons and myself, of course, I can’t let them have all the fun, along with anyone else interested.

You see, I had been a boy many years prior, and found myself testing the limits of my strength in sports, but that didn’t seem enough for me.  In junior high we humored ourselves by arranging fights for ourselves after school, of the bare knuckle variety, to give additional proof that we were stronger and tougher than the average Joe, not GI Joe mind you, just the average one.  I didn’t want that for my sons, to fight that is.  Yes, you are beginning to smile at the irony.  “Teach your kids how to fight so then they won’t fight?” you ask sardonically.

In reality, most martial arts are not about fighting, but instead about defending, and violence, particularly against those who are vulnerable is not tolerated.  My sons had the same question I had as a young man.  They asked themselves continually, “Am I strong?” And, they sought to prove it.  Also. we didn’t want them fighting each other, so, as we began Taekwondo, I warned them that now they were trained martial artists and soon to be masters and they were now very dangerous people and capable of inflicting great harm on others if they used their learning inappropriately.  Smile.  Yes, some weeks later I heard my third one goading the first born physically and witnessed my first born explain to him in no uncertain terms that he would not hit him as he wanted.  He proclaimed, “I am now a yellow belt, and I will not hit you, because my punch could possibly kill you.  I am too disciplined for that.”  Yep, it had worked!

You see, Taekwondo is based on five tenets of Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-Control and an Indomitable Spirit.  All of which interestingly enough you can find scriptures to support in the Bible.  It has had an amazing impact on my sons and ultimately myself.  They grew up and were required by myself to compete internationally. You should have seen the African boys looking forward to taking out on my sons all the ills of African Colonialism; yes it took them a bit of courage to take the mat.  As well they had to stay in until they completed their second degree black belt as there is such a difference in maturity between the first degree and second.

This courage and inner strength empowered them to not react violently to not only each other, but more importantly to the many aggressive people that asserted themselves against them during our twenty years in Africa as well as to not be fearful for themselves.  If you know any of them, they have not suffered from that, but have walked with great self assurance and held their heads high.

I am thankful, looking back retrospectively, to God, for giving us the art and sport of Taekwondo and I had no idea that after our time in Togo it would come to have such an impact on not only our lives but the entire country of Rwanda and even advance the sport for Africa as well.

Romans 12:2  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds then you can test and approve what God’s will is; his good, pleasing, and perfect will.

I can attest that not only God’s Will is good, pleasing and perfect, but that bizarrely it was His Will that we did Taekwondo.

More on that in the next post.

 

 

Aftermath of genocide

I hesitate to write this, but I long for you to understand more clearly that in many ways, the beauty that is now Rwanda came from such deep tragedy.

In 100 days from April to July of 1994 a horrific genocide occurred in Rwanda that brought about the death of an estimated one million Rwandans.  That is an average of ten thousand human lives extinguished each day.

It happened twenty-three years ago.  As a foreigner, I can only listen to, learn about, observe, and imagine what it was to survive, grow up in, or be born into the aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide.  It is now considered to be one of the most brutal in the history of man.  It happened neighbor to neighbor and hand to hand with machetes and clubs, as to not “waste” bullets because those killing didn’t consider those being killed worth a bullet. You can read about it in the many books, some that even debate the reasons for and origins of such carnage.  You can find pictures, videos, and movies about it and can even muse about the world’s lack of response and what could have happened if countries had cared enough to intervene.

Many, more scholarly than myself, can detail for you the psychological damages of witnessing such events and living in an entire populace of those affected by PTSD.  Upon our arrival to Rwanda in 2008, the average age of the country was, I believe, nineteen.  All those fourteen and above had witnessed and survived the genocide.  The government had already taken great strides in rebuilding the country physically and helping the people to move forward with reconciliation as well as judgement for the perpetrators.

I would use two words to describe most of the people I met when we arrived in Rwanda:  vulnerable, which creates a natural caution to trust no one and hopeful, which gave a deep longing for the better in all things.  Families and communities had been destroyed and with it all the good that comes from loving relationships such as encouragement, protection, culture, faith, history, and achievement.  Yet, there was hope that better days would come and the past would not be repeated.

I had not been here long and two events deeply impacted me.  I was asked by a group of orphans from the genocide to drive them around during the period of mourning to visit other groups of orphans and encourage them to persist in life.  I stood before a crowd and was asked to encourage them.  To say that I struggled for words was an understatement.  They had known pain that no human should ever know and had persisted through trials, I could never understand.

While on this tour, we visited memorial sites that contained the bodies of those victims.  One of them called Murambi, actually had the bodies preserved in their clothes and positions as they had been killed.  As I was touring and weeping, I looked up to see two horizontal scars across the base of the neck of the young man I was following.  I asked, later, what had happened to him and they let me know that by the time all of his family had been murdered before his eyes, that the machetes had been too dull to sever his head and that after two attempts, they had just thrown him into the river to bleed to death or drown.

As we are chronicling this journey into faith development through sport and establishing its value, I just wanted you to imagine with me, for a moment, what it would have been like for you, to survive one hundred days such as this.

Oh, and please continue to pray for Rwanda.

Thanks.

I didn’t want to do this Part 2 – Being

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One of my great fears in coming to Africa was that my children would not have the opportunities to develop as I had growing up in the USA.  One thing, of many, that I have learned about God, though, is that He specializes in not just overcoming fears but more importantly in giving fullness and abundance to our lives.

Sports had been such a huge part of my development.  The learning of perseverance through pain, teamwork, discipline, overcoming loss, winning with humility, and the courage to take the field or run the race were so instrumental in teaching me authentic manhood.  How could we live in the bush of Togo, West Africa, raising our four sons and persist without sports, without the opportunity to teach the great lessons of life within the context of training and competing?

P1010420When our oldest son was seven, we had our first sport camp for our kids.  It was pretty simple, just introducing them to football, basketball, baseball, and soccer.  More importantly, it was a building of faithful character through sport.  Whereas my development in sport had not been with spiritual intention, it now seemed such a natural extension; to take the lessons of sport and apply them spiritually to life itself.

The good was obvious and I wanted to delve more deeply into it.

A couple of years later my initiatives to give opportunity to my sons to enjoy and grow through sports spilled over into our community.  We had an unused soccer field near our house and after I received permission from local authorities, I cut out a baseball field.  That year, titanium bats had been removed from high school baseball and friends in the US promptly had sent two teams worth of equipment to us in Togo.  We bribed the local kids that for every month of baseball they gave me, I would give them two months of soccer.  And, thus it began.

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A short while later, we started Taekwondo for our sons and myself.  This quickly became inclusive of our neighborhood friends.  Bible study and prayer very naturally integrated into the sports and the impact of the training, competing, and studying affected our sons and all other participants deeply.

Little did I know what God  had in store for us in our transition from Togo to Rwanda.

I Corinthians 9:25  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.  They do it to get a crown  that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

 

Up, running, and even better! 

By His Grace and your generous affection for the work in Rwanda, our work truck, referenced in our previous post, Making Lemonade, has been completely revived.

These true sport utility vehicles are amazingly resilient and strong.  Even after spinning off the road and dropping into a river and remaining in said river for five hours, it was brought back to life.  The chasis was mangled, gear box shattered, engine filled with water, not to mention the damage to the rest of the suspension and the body itself. It had died.

Now, though, with the perseverance of a close friend and our mechanic, Bob, along with your Godly gifts of $6500, it is up and running again complete with stickers and all.  It is ready to transport our teams, officials, mobile venues, etc… It is ready for work.

For the last week we have been sorting out the sounds and rattles and now it is running in stealth mode, more quiet than even when we bought it from a safari company in 2009.  All is well.

Thanks to you all, especially Jennifer and Jason Durand, for making it so!

Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

I didn’t want to do this Part 1b – Becoming

Friday the 13th of June, 1997, I turned in badge and keys to the district manager and resigned as an area director of Wal Mart.  It was time to pack our container, say goodbye to our families and, along with our two young sons, fly to Togo, Africa, our future home for the coming several years.  We had become missionaries heading to a new life in Africa.  How ironic after my bold declarations of nine years before that I would never be a missionary and would absolutely never by a missionary in Africa.  What in the world would have led us to such a risky and somewhat bizarre change in our lives?

A tribute to my wife – Louise

All who know her love her.  She is undoubtedly the most talented woman I have ever met.  She is a fine artist, a gifted seamstress and designer, a graphic designer, a professional photographer, an exceptional teacher, an amazing wife to me and mother to our four sons, and a deep lover of God.  She is truly a beautiful woman.  She had married me assuming I would be a physician and an Olympian.  After the injury, though, I had assessed my direction and realized I would make a proper physician but would likely be a poor husband and father while doing so.  She was in a solid career in advertising but was supportive as I transitioned out of grad school and a future in medicine to working in retail for Wal Mart.  She knew what I did not.  We were destined for missions in Africa.  So, in 1993, while on a visit to Memphis, she dined with some future missionaries heading to Togo in West Africa and confided in them, unbeknownst to myself, that we as well had some interest in missions one day.

Three years later in 1996, many things had changed.  I had become successful in my new career and had matured considerably, by God’s grace.  Nothing like walking into a 200,000 square foot Wal Mart with 600 employess and 20,000 visitors a week; being handed the keys and wished good luck, to grow you up a bit.  We had moved to the beautiful small town of Remington, Virginia and were part of a vibrant church in Warrenton.  Over the previous years my faith had taken hold and permeated most of my life (would love to say all but am trying to be honest!).  Our preacher quit and I began, alongside my 80 hours or so with WM.  After five months of dueling works, a businessman and his wife took us out for a meal, looked across the table and asked, “Why don’t you quit what you are doing and do what God has called you to do?”  With a start, we said, “Excuse me?”.  He then said, “Why don’t you quit Wal Mart and go to Africa and be the missionaries that God has called you to be?”  We wept, right there in Jerry’s Pizza.  It was time.

Two days later, we were encouraged to call a missionary who was home on furlough from Togo, West Africa.  I did and brought him up to date.  He then asked if I was sitting down.  I was.  He then informed me that since Louise had visited them three years prior he and another teammate had been praying for us daily that we would quit our jobs in the US and come to Africa as missionaries.  We wept.

How could God love me that much that he was so patient to “wrestle” with me for those previous eight years?  Amazing.  Just call me Israel (one who wrestles with God), bum hip and all.

Later, just before leaving for Africa, someone approached me and remarked how great our faith must be.  Immediately I responded that with all that God had shown us, and even with a repeated “calling” after eight years and all the answered prayers, it would be a greater show of disbelief in God to stay in the US than a show of belief to go.